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Leftovers & Links: Notre Dame looks ahead this week to 2019, while still readying for Clemson

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Notre Dame’s focus will not stray much from Clemson, but if there is any week this month where some attention is paid elsewhere, it is this one. The 72-hour early signing period begins Wednesday morning, meaning questions about 2019 and future roster construction are only natural.

As for the No. 3 Irish, they took to the field Saturday for a 60-play scrimmage, per head coach Brian Kelly, beginning a transition from “a lot of technique work” into Tigers-specific thoughts.

Even in that pseudo-spring practice, Kelly saw a difference from Jafar Armstrong compared to how the sophomore running back looked throughout the season’s second half. With senior Dexter Williams sidelined through the first four weeks of the year, Armstrong racked up 332 total yards with five touchdowns. Then a knee infection shut him down for three games and a sprained ankle suffered in his first game back limited his effectiveness in November.

Armstrong totaled 80 yards in the last four games, including none through the air.

“Every time it seemed that we turned a corner, something would put him back,” Kelly said Saturday. “I think this is the first time that we’ve seen him …  He’ll get a ton of work today, and we think he’s back to where he was earlier in the season.”

Notre Dame hopes so, because with or without Armstrong, offensive coordinator Chip Long is going to run the ball. Despite Clemson having the country’s best run defense, one fronted by three defensive linemen earning about every accolade and praise possible, Long will undoubtedly remain committed to the ground game.

“It starts with physicality over finesse,” Kelly said of Long’s play calling. “Essentially, he knows that we have to start with a tight end on the field, somebody that can help us in the run game, and our offense will start with the run game.

“Everything can be built off of that. … And then [Long] is really good at being patient and probing, and he will stick to what his plan is.”

The Irish averaged 38.3 genuine rush attempts per game this season, only twice falling below 30 (28 at Virginia Tech; 26 at USC). Clemson opponents, meanwhile, averaged 35.2 genuine rush attempts per game, with a full half dozen failing to break 30, low-lighted by Syracuse’s 25 attempts and South Carolina’s 22. Remove two triple-option opponents from the mix and that season-long average falls to 33.5.

Tigers foes gave up running the ball because Clemson shut that part of the game down. Long will not give in as quickly.

Now then, to some forward-looking questions …

Who is leaving for the NFL, another team, etc.? — nmmargie

Being in the Playoff makes this a tougher question to answer at this point than it usually is. There simply is no discussion of it publicly and only a touch of it behind closed doors. No one is going to express an intention to leave before the postseason run ends. Simple as that. Well, except senior tight end Alizé Mack. He has already committed to playing in the Senior Bowl, but that was as much about securing that slot as anything else.

Of the rest with eligibility remaining, five seem to have NFL decisions to ponder: junior defensive ends Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara, junior cornerback Julian Love, junior receiver Chase Claypool and senior receiver Miles Boykin.

How Notre Dame fares in two weeks could dictate some of those decisions. Further speculation requires a reach in logic.

As for those likely to transfer, this space does not comment on that in any form of a guessing game. Looking at an updated depth chart, though, the Irish will have 92 players expected for August if all 21 current commitments sign this week. Players are going to leave. (That 92 includes all five of those wondering about the NFL, so that can start the necessary trimming. It does not include senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush; it is that certain he transfers elsewhere as a graduate student.)

Notre Dame will not need 13 receivers, 14 linebackers or 16 defensive backs. Expect some of the attrition to come from those overloaded positions, with perhaps a player on each line also heading out.

The return of defensive tackle Jerry Tillery last offseason keyed much of Notre Dame’s unbeaten run. In a similar way, end Khalid Kareem (pictured) could hold the keys to next year. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

With next year including games at Georgia and at Michigan, what is the team going to look like? I’m not too worried about the offense — quite a few skill players and OL returning to help make the transition. But the defense loses the middle — Bonner, Tillery, Tranquill, Coney for sure, maybe Love as well. How do you think we will fare with an Irish reload? — Gary H.

This is tough to answer until those NFL decisions are made. Primarily, if both Kareem and Okwara return, the defense should be just fine. If Love joins them, it will have the makings of another dominant unit.

Kareem, specifically, gives the Irish front some flexibility. He can play inside on most downs, putting Okwara and junior Daelin Hayes at the ends. The litany of capable, but young, defensive tackles can rotate through alongside and in place of Kareem. That theoretical line would serve just fine and make up for some immediate inexperience at linebacker.

Lose Kareem and/or Okwara and this becomes more of a concern. Check back Jan. 15.

Speaking of linebacker, though, expect Asmar Bilal to move inside for his final season, offering some physicality and experience there while Shayne Simon gets his turn at rover.

Assuming Shaun Crawford comes back healthy and ready to play next year, who gets the short stick of playing time in the secondary? Assuming Julian Love comes back, you return everybody except Coleman. Will we not see Bracy or Griffith as much, both really talented guys? What about Derrik Allen, who came in as a pretty high recruit from Georgia? Seems like Kelly also likes Paul Moala. Obviously a good problem to have, but an interesting talking point, nonetheless. — Thomas W.

Well, it may be wishful thinking to assume Love comes back. That is not to say he won’t, but it is to say it seems more likely he heads to the NFL.

It is also wishful thinking to assume Crawford returns healthy. Yes, barring a setback he will be cleared during the summer. But this ACL tear was Crawford’s third major injury. His quickness has diminished with each, and that is unlikely to be restored by August. Crawford should be in a position to contribute, but that may need to be in even more of a part-time role than before. Perhaps he splits nickel back reps with current freshman Houston Griffith and current freshman TaRiq Bracy fills in where Love leaves off.

As for Allen, there does not need to be a rush to get a player on the field just because they arrive highly-touted. As often as not, not doing so speaks positively of those already around (current juniors Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman) more than it does negatively of the young presumed star. Elliott will be out of eligibility after 2019, and Gilman transferred to Notre Dame specifically because he wants to play in the NFL; he may be gone, as well. There is no need for Allen to be impatient, a route to playing time is clear.

And when Kelly is high on Moala, that is more about special teams. Don’t expect too much from him in the secondary next season, if anything.

Playing time exists for those that need it and deserve it. Even if Love returns, this year has shown how quickly a Bracy can be needed. One injury, one underperforming starter, and in he goes.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame avoids silliness of postseason
Where Notre Dame was & is: Quarterbacks
Where Notre Dame was, is & will need to be: Running backs
Where Notre Dame was, is & will need to be: Receivers and tight ends
Where Notre Dame was, is & will need to be: Offensive line
Friday at 4: Notre Dame’s unbeaten season yields many wrong preseason predictions
Where Notre Dame was, is & will need to be: Defensive line

OUTSIDE READING:
Putting Dexter Williams’ redemptive run in perspective
Irish LB commit Jack Kiser wins IndyStar Mr. Football
Mike Sanford to be Utah State offensive coordinator
College football’s 50 best players for 2018 season
Stewart Mandel’s college football bowl confidence picks
Bruce Feldman’s college football bowl confidence picks
Sports Illustrated’s college football bowl confidence picks
RotoWorld’s Mark Lindquist college football bowl confidence picks
USA Today bowl picks
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